“X-Men: Apocalypse” is the poster child for superhero-franchise overkill. The new movie is the third in the sequence of “young X-Men” prequels, sixth in the combined “old/young X-Men” series, eighth if you include the “Wolverine” spinoffs, and — oh, the hell with it, I’ve lost count.
Point is, the property is running on bald tires, and, for all its ear-splitting racket and lavish effects, “Apocalypse” is the barest of retreads. The plot is a photocopy of a photocopy: a super-villain from before time wants to end humanity as we know it, ho-hum. The dialogue is stentorian and lands with a clang. There isn’t enough humor, and what there is feels strained. You’ll have trouble telling the players apart even with a scorecard.
And let’s not even get into the scene set in Auschwitz.
You know what? Let’s. The arrival of an ancient Egyptian hobgoblin named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) — the primeval X-Man, if you will — has reawakened and is forcing our heroes and anti-heroes to take sides. The time is the early 1980s, and an early multi-character smackdown occurs at the shuttered World War II death camp where the parents of the conflicted Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) met their doom at the hand of the Nazis.
As punches land with over-amped thwaks and superpowered whirlwinds reduce the buildings to rubble, part of your brain — the part that values reality — may recoil from the co-opting of immense historic suffering in the name of corporatized comic book wow. Never forget? Nah, just blow it all up. CGI Macht Frei.
Later on, there’s another moment of high tastelessness as Apocalypse manages to launch the combined nuclear warheads of Earth and, as the bombs are hanging up there in the sky, we’re treated to an extended bit of slapstick in which the rebellious teen Quicksilver (Evan Peters) rushes about saving the students of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) from a fiery death, to the tune of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Potentially the wittiest scene in the movie, it’s soured by the lead-up: Armageddon is here — but, first, a comic interlude!
“X-Men: Apocalypse” is for audiences who only know history as a Wikipedia link and mass extinction as a comic-book plot point. Anyway, an addled tone is the least of the movie’s problems. At this point in the series, the cast is more crammed with bodies than the Green Line at rush hour, and while they’re all quite fascinating to look at, none is given nearly enough screen-time to register.
A few manage to stand out: As the cobalt-colored shape-shifter Mystique, Jennifer Lawrence strides through the nonsense like she owns it, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is touchingly naive as the adolescent Nightcrawler. A hectic cameo appearance by an uncredited X-Man with fingernail issues briefly rouses the movie from its torpor.
But Sophie Turner — Sansa from “Game of Thrones” — is a blah Jean Grey, stuck in an arrested YA romance with Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops. And you may not even realize that’s Oscar Isaac you’re watching until the end credits come on, so completely is the light of this talented, mercurial actor hidden under a bushel of blue CGI goop.
I know the armies of fanboy conspiracy theorists will think I’ve been paid to say this, but the fact remains that the current “Captain America: Civil War” is the superior $250 million trinket because its roster of above-average actors gets to work with dialogue that’s looser, funnier, more based in character than in pushing a 10-ton franchise exoskeleton along. “X-Men: Apocalypse” has a similarly strong cast — McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Isaac — but the primary emotion you feel for them is embarrassment.
Franchise series move in cycles, and the moment seems right for superheroes who don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s the nano-era of “Deadpool” cynicism, “Ant-Man” silliness, and the blithe multi-character donnybrook that lights up “Civil War” halfway through. The psychologically traumatized heroes of “Batman v Superman” seem like turgid old news, and the busy extended-universe-building of the new “X-Men” is a throwback to the turn of the millennium, when these movies were just getting started. Take away that thrill of discovery, though, and you’re left with noisy blockbuster decadence. Or “X-Men: Apocalypse,” as you will.
Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 140 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of violence, action, and destruction, brief strong language, some suggestive images).